Pitching your Product
I want to pass on some of the things I’ve learned in 23-years of pitching products and ideas. During that time, I’ve worked on two continents, founded three startups, and run three ad agencies. The purpose of my current company is to support startup founders.
These days, I try to help founders better understand what investors need to hear, and the tips and tricks we’re about to look at are designed to get you making more successful pitches. The principles are simple to learn, but they’re very effective.
I should warn you that some of this, I’ll be doing via the medium of Star Wars – but don’t worry if you haven’t seen the film. The things you’ll be reading about are based on techniques which will make a big difference to how successful your pitches are, whether or not you’re familiar with Luke Skywalker.
Most agencies start a pitch with their creds (see credentials) slide. The purpose of the slide is to provide the audience with a quick visual indication of how knowledgeable you are, by displaying the great brands you’ve worked with.
My own credit slide is a map of all the brands I’ve been involved with in my career. It’s there because I want you to think I know what I’m talking about.
I always glean some confidence from knowing Burberry and H&M are featured on my slide – because if they’re willing to let me do their marketing, and I dress how I dress, I must be really good at pitching.
My biggest fear when I’m pitching. All the heads before me start to drop, eyes begin to glaze over, and my audience just isn’t buying or understanding what I’m selling.
When you pitch something, it can be hugely frustrating when people don’t get it. We’ve all been in situations where our message is getting away from us. For instance, I’ve got two kids who never listen to me – even though I know what’s best for them. Parents use all the tricks available to them when dealing with kids, and there are also ways of putting a message across in a pitch, which maximise your chances of being heard.
I’m going to share some of the tactics, tricks, ideas, and strategies I’ve picked up and developed over the years. If you can build these methods into your own pitching, it will improve how you convey your vision, and make sure that by the time your audience leaves, they can see what you see.
We’ll start by looking at how joining up the dots of your presentation makes it easier for an audience to understand what you’re saying, and how storytelling makes it easier for you to keep them interested.
Storytelling is a great way to combat loss of interest. It’s a very powerful way to present information and to capture and maintain the interest of a room.
Great storytelling is why we go in our droves to movie theatres and spend hours glued to the big screen. It’s the reason we’re enthralled by plays, and it’s how we can sit through twelve episodes of a DVD boxset without coming up for air. It’s why you just can’t wait for that next episode, or you can’t put down that book. Great storytelling grabs attention – and it keeps attention.
For thousands of years, we’ve used storytelling as a medium to pass information and knowledge between ourselves. It’s a feature of human history which remains unchanged. Stories are extremely important to the way we communicate. That’s because people find stories easy to follow, and their attention spans grow longer as a result.
Having a great idea is just that – great, but to effectively communicate that idea we need to create structure around it and make it into a concept that can be related and understood. A story is a way to bring an idea to life and it’s a very effective aid to selling.
How I like to look at the way people are, and the way they rationalise and understand things, is that essentially, they’re not dot collectors – people are dot connectors.
We don’t try to remember the position of individual dots; we connect them together and place them in a context. We find it easier to remember those individual points – or dots – when they’re part of a memorable whole.
When you set up the points within your story to flow, people are better able and more likely to remember your pitch. You may be looking to sell a product, or trying to warn cave mates about a saber tooth tiger – but there’s a reason why storytelling has been used to convey information for so long.
Humans are wired for stories, and when you’re pitching, storytelling is a very powerful way to get people to identify and align with your idea.
When you stand before an audience and pitch, the last thing you want to do is start off by saying you’re going to present 97 points. You’ll instantly lose most of the room. Consider that you’ll need to maintain the attention of your audience when you design your pitch. Limit the number of points you present to a figure that won’t be daunting, and you won’t go too far wrong.
For the same reason, I’m going to keep the number of points here manageable. I’m going with six of the best tactics you can use in your own pitches, to get better results.
Now, if there was only one thing I’d want you to take away from reading this, it’d be that you need to make your client the hero of the story – not yourself. Most people make the mistake of positioning themselves as the hero and I’m going to show you why that’s not the way to go. Prepare yourself for my first Star Wars reference.
When you read websites, you’ll often see people making themselves the hero. This is a mistake because nobody out there wants to buy the success of your company – what they desire is to make a better version of themselves, and they’re always looking for something that will help them do that.
In essence, your job is not to be Luke Skywalker – it’s not to be the hero. You want to be Yoda – the sage, the wise man – here to guide your hero on their journey to make themselves better. The best way to gain the trust of those listening is to make yourself the sage. You’ll come across as the one with all the knowledge, you’ll be seen as a guide, and most importantly – you’ll allow your client to be the hero.
Making your client the hero is a very powerful tactic. There’s a reason why heroes and sages are all over the movies and spilling out of written tales, such as Harry Potter. You can split people up into groups of heroes and sages when it comes to these journeys. It’s very important you play the role of sage in the story of your pitch.
You’ll be saving me a lot of writing if you watch Simon Sinek’s excellent TED Talk about how people buy your why. It’s had more than twelve million views, so a lot of you will already have seen it. If you haven’t, take a look.
What we’re essentially saying when we talk about people buying your why, is that you must appear to have a deeper purpose.
Let’s consider Nike shoes. What do Nike training shoes do? Well, they stop your feet from rubbing on the ground – that’s their primary and most basic function. They can also help you gain a little more traction, maybe even a little more speed. But that’s just what Nike shoes do – that’s the easy part. If we’re unable to convey what Nike shoes do, we should just give up now, because we’re very unlikely to be able to come up with a successful pitch.
Most businesses even get as far as how they do things. With Nike, that’s talking about technical features, such as the air in the sole of the shoe, or the pumps, triggers and an array of performance-enhancing attributes.
It’s when you look at Nike’s ads that you realise why they’re such a successful and powerful brand. Because they sell their why. Nike’s deeper purpose is to help you become the best athlete you can be.
The fact of the matter is that people will align with your why and it makes for an extremely powerful way to sell things. The difficulty with selling your why is that just finding one for your product can be very difficult. So, rather than you trying to work that out, I suggest you make the why about yourself.
When you make the why about you, I want you to do it by baking your why into an origin story. Once again, we can consider movies and business as similar here, because an origin story is a thing that happens somewhere along the line – it’s a catalyst in your life and makes you what you are, makes you do the things you’re doing, and it’s the reason you feel so strongly. If you’re in business, it’s how you chose this career or this job. It’s why you built a product or it’s what made you decide to run a service. If you’re in the movies, it’s maybe why you catch bad guys, or how you became an arch-villain.
Batman’s origin story is about attending the theatre with his parents, they made the mistake of exiting through a back alley, they were robbed, and the thieves shot Batman’s parents dead – right in front of him. That’s when he vowed to fight evil and crime for the rest of his life.
The thing about Batman’s story is that it’s perfectly believable, and it gives him his reason for being. Without his origin, Batman would be just another weird guy in a black rubber suit. I mean, he probably still is a weird guy in a black rubber suit, but what’s important is his origin story shows us he’s never going to give up because he’s driven by a higher purpose – and we can invest in that.
It’s as if Batman has to have that great origin story to convince us to root for him. If he didn’t have it, we’d imagine him looking at his watch when confronted with a bank robbery just before 5 pm and saying, “Ah look, it’s my clocking off time, so you just carry on with stealing all the money from that bank.”
People get hung up on by low-paid call centre workers, after two hours of holding, all the time – they’re jaded. To capture their imagination, you need a great back story – just like Batman. You have to give them a reason to believe you won’t let them down, and that you’ll never give up – just like the weird guy in the black rubber suit.
The thing to take from this is that when you have a higher purpose for what you’re providing or trying to do, people will align with it. You need to remember that people buy why you’re doing something, and not what you’re doing.
Too often, we get totally focused on what we’re pitching. The facts and the features. What I want you to try to do is to sell on essence and emotion, because if you’re perceived as being driven to do something, people are far more likely to align with you and support you.
And now for another Star Wars reference…
The Deathstar represents my own origin story. If you can remember my credential slide at the beginning of this article – I showed you all of those big brands, right?
Back when I was working for those big brands, they often paid me for marketing strategies which were ultimately aimed at crushing innovation. I was the guy sitting over at the big ad agency, and when you’re out there doing your best to disrupt an industry – I was doing my best to stop you. I would often be involved in a meeting when a new and innovative product was being released, and these companies would want to know, “How do we beat this?”
So, I found myself sitting in a boardroom one day, and they said, “Look, how can we stop this disruptive new product?” I jumped up and white-boarded a whole bunch of solutions and everyone said, “That’s amazing! This is fantastic, Gerard, but where are you referencing? How are you doing this?”
The truth was, I found it easy to come up with barriers to innovation because I’d been a startup founder myself. I knew exactly what I wouldn’t want them to do, and I was just advising them on that basis.
When I sat back down that day, I had an epiphany of sorts. I thought of myself like an engineer who’d been asked to work on the greatest project of all time. A giant planet – totally mechanical. Sure, this may be the biggest and boldest, the greatest engineering feat of all time – but it’s also the Deathstar.
That’s when I knew I was on the wrong team. I needed to help the founders, innovators, and the startups. My true calling was to join the rebel alliance of the industry and disrupt. To make the world a better place by shaking up the convention.
So, my own origin was that point in my history. When I decided to devote my marketing knowledge and skills to the wider purpose of helping people sell innovation. To try to make the world better by living vicariously through their success – because I’d reached a point where I could no longer be comfortable with my own.
And that’s my origin story. It’s how I present myself and when I get it right, then you’ll think, “I believe Gerard and what he says. I’m confident he’s got my best interests at heart. He gave up his great career to help me in mine. Without needing to know anything about his technical abilities, I think I probably want to chat to him.”
You’ll be remembered for what you represent
I guess what I mean is that it’s important to realise you’re going to be accepted or remembered for what you represent – not for what you do.
I think the Lego characters illustrate this point really well because ostensibly, they’re all made in the same plastic mold. They’re an identical shape with the same feet and arms – Lego just changes what they represent with a different coloured hat or hair, and different clothes.
And that’s a very important thing to consider – people will replicate your ideas; they absolutely will bring alternatives to what you’re pitching. But if you’re about what you represent – people can’t take that away from you.
“A company can’t own its facts. If the company’s facts are superior to the competition, any good competitor will duplicate or improve them”
Mark Benioff is the founder and CEO of Salesforce, and his quote is all about a truth. If we fall into the trap of pitching features, facts, and elements of our business – people will just copy them. We live in a global world, so if someone is going to copy you and they’ve got more money; they’re going to be doing it faster, and they’re going to do it cheaper.
If what you do is pitch on features, then you ultimately end up competing on price, and that’s a very fast way to get in a very fast race to the bottom.
The best products don’t win – the best marketing, positioning and the best stories are what ultimately capture attention. That’s what grabs people’s imagination. Just remember, while it’s sometimes easy to take short-term comfort in the idea of building extra features, it’s probably not what’s ultimately going to work for you. And don’t forget, they can’t take away your why.
When you pitch a product, you have to solve a problem. It’s absolutely crucial to make sure the problem is big enough to make a significant difference. Solving a small problem is not going to move anyone around and inertia is your greatest enemy – bigger even than your competition.
The status quo is what you need to fight against, so you want the problem you’re solving to be a big one. Now, you can do what the movies do really well, and split problems into internal, and external problems. Luke Skywalker’s external problem – and I warned you there was going to be lots of Star Wars references – was Darth Vader. He had to fight him, right? That’s a really clear external problem.
But, have you ever noticed the movies where it’s all about the fighting and the battle scenes, and there’s no story behind it? They don’t really work – you don’t get fully engaged.
The stories which work are the ones in which the lead character has an external fight, let’s say he has to fight Darth Vader – but he has an internal struggle too. That internal struggle is what makes the story, it’s about a thing the hero wants, and it’s emotional.
So, your goal in your positioning is to identify an internal struggle you can help your customer with. Help the hero of your story find a way to make themselves better.
Now, if your pitch is great, then you may even be able to combine the internal and the external. In the Star Wars story, Luke has inner struggles. He has doubts about whether he’s a Jedi. But he’s also got to fight Darth Vader – and Vader just happens to be his father! That’s a great story, right?
If you can combine them, all the better. But really try to focus on the internal struggle. Make it about your hero becoming better. You’ll go a lot further with your pitch if you can do that.
So, just to touch on pitching products and investors. Investors love disruption – they thrive on it. Disruption is an opportunity for an investor, it’s a market gap, a way to carve out a niche to exploit, and make money.
Most customers that you pitch to will hate innovation. That’s just how the world works. Our species learn from repeating the same thing – over and over. We don’t make massive leaps; we repeat and adapt – slowly and gradually. Innovation goes against our natural instincts, we’re not wired for it, and most of us certainly don’t take easily to it.
You may have seen Everett Rogers’ adoption innovation curve; you may not have. But it’s important to understand when you’re pitching, that everyone out there falls somewhere on this curve.
Let’s take fashion for example. I’m probably a late majority on fashion, but when it comes to fashion marketing, I’m right down as an early adopter and innovator. What does that mean? Well, all of us can, within one genre or market, be in two very different places on the curve. We’re like quantum particles, we can exist in two different places at once – but we’re always somewhere, regardless of the product or service.
Your task is not to take your marketing budget and drop it on the whole market – because some of your dollars will go in the wrong place. The largest part of your sales efforts, the majority of your pitches, will find the late adopters and laggards. Try and target the early adopters as best you can, and direct your energies there.
Most startups will already have a healthy following of early adopters. To begin to really scale and grab a large chunk of the market though, the battle is to get across the “chasm”.
CURVE CHASM SLIDE
Geoffrey Moore wrote an extremely influential book and coined the term, “the chasm” back in the late nineties. It’s a book I’d highly recommend you read, if you haven’t already.
When we talk about crossing the chasm, we mean taking our product past the people who are willing to forgive us. We’re looking to take on the rest of the dwellers on that curve and make our product mainstream.
That’s going to be the challenge facing a lot of your businesses. At some unavoidable point in time, you’re going to need to take on the rest of the market. In order to continue growing, you’ll have to develop techniques that make you more successful at pitching to the early and late majority folks on the curve.
One strategy you can start with – is to put up your slide.
As we’ve said, your creds slide shows your credentials. So, when I showed you my slide earlier, that was a lot to do with the concept of avoiding failure. When pitching, one of your biggest enemies is fear of failure, and I’m not talking about your own nerves; I’m referring to the audience and the things that might stop them getting on board with your product. It’s their fear of making the wrong decision which often results in them being too apprehensive to make any decision at all.
A great illustration of what fear of failure does to buyers is the old IBM slogan; “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. It directly targets fear of failure.
A credit slide may help you when you pitch to a difficult room. By putting a slide up at the start like this, I’m showing the room my experience and I want them to think, “Well, if Coca Cola payed attention to Gerard, he’s probably right”. And that will go some way to easing my task, because it eases their fear of failure.
It’s crucial to do everything you can to remove their apprehension. One of the things which will stop people buying your product is the fear that they’re going to get it wrong. You need to do as much as possible to get past that, so don’t be reluctant to show them where you’ve been, and what you can do.
The Stroop effect tells us something very important about the way an audience perceives a pitch, and the best way to illustrate this is to have a quick go at the test. You’re going to start by looking at the following video, and I want you to hit the ‘play’ button then just read each word, from top to bottom and left to right. Read them out loud in your head, whilst timing yourself. It pause when you’re done and you’ll see the time you took
Ok, so hopefully that didn’t take too long. I’d like you to make a note of the time it took you to read the whole image. Then, we’re going to look at the next picture, which again contains a list of words. This time, I want you to read all the words in the same way, but I want you to ignore the colour they’re printed in. Again, you’ll time yourself and keep a note. This is a little bit harder, and it generally takes people a second or two longer to get through the list.
With the third and final picture in this series, I want you to read the colour of the print – not the word that’s written. People find this far harder in general, and at some point, most people make a mistake and read the word. Try it. This picture usually takes around 5-seconds longer to complete.
The Stroop effect shows us that the word being used is more significant than the reality being described. This is a super-powerful thing to know when it comes to pitching. That’s because sometimes, we have a tendency to fall back and say, “You’ll see the quality of my product. You’ll know that I’m good”
That’s as maybe, but actually, if you want to be sure, you need to tell the room. You need to spell out clearly that your product is of high quality.
So, let’s look at how that works in the real world. I used to drive an ice-cream truck when I was at uni. Occasionally, I’d take the truck out to the factory to get it fixed up. That involved sitting around for long periods. I’d wait and I’d watch a machine depositing splodge after splodge of vanilla ice cream into tub after tub, which was strangely satisfying to watch. Then, one day this guy came out. He took all of the blue tubs away and put yellow tubs in their place. Then, he went back and turned on the machine, and started filling up the tubs again.
So, I looked at the yellow tubs and saw they were for a generic brand of supermarket ice cream. I kind of had this moment when I was about nineteen where I thought, “Well, it’s the same ice cream, but you’re telling me it’s cheaper. So, I’m going to pay less for it.”
And that’s a strategy I really want you to take forward when you pitch. Don’t be afraid to say exactly what you want from a person. Don’t be tempted to hold back and think “They’ll see the quality. They’ll see it’s superior.”
Whatever happens, to be great about you – or great about your product, you need to say exactly what it is. If people have to use calories in their brains to decipher something, your product will be harder to sell.
Loss Aversion Theory is another behavioural psychology element which applies here. Business insider did a great video to illustrate this. They went out to a news stand where people were buying lottery tickets for $2, and they offered to buy those tickets for $4 each. Most people wouldn’t sell the lottery ticket they’d just purchased for two dollars.
That doesn’t make sense in monetary terms. If I’ve got a rational brain, of course, I’ll take the four dollars and go and buy two more lottery tickets. I’ll just keep doubling my money. But people didn’t, because they attach a higher value to something they already have, than something they can get.
The way a business typically takes advantage of loss aversion psychology is with a free trial. If I’ve had Netflix for 30-days, and my kids have gotten used to having the Star Wars movies, it’s going to be really hard to take that away from me when the month is up.
I value Netflix higher having used it. When it comes to it being taken away, I’m far more reluctant than I would be if I hadn’t tried it. Your goal with product pitching is to get your potential buyer engaged with the product. If you can get them involved and to take ownership, they’ll attach a higher value to it than if you’re coming at them coldly.
So, lastly. It ends in success. You need to use images of success in your pitch. It’s your job, as the sage and the storyteller, to show people what success will look like after they buy into you.
Great brands do this brilliantly. They’ll show you weight loss – before and after. Fashion brands may show you how you’d look great in their clothes, and how confident you’d be wearing their perfume. If you buy a Mercedes, you can be a successful executive and all of a sudden, your hair grows back – that sort of thing.
It’s your job as the sage to convince people there’s success at the end of the journey, and to show them what it looks like. Back in Star Wars, Obi-Wan had to tell Luke that he’d made it, he was a Jedi and he’d successfully fought his inner demons.
Nike’s Serena Williams campaign is a thing I really love. Everything Nike does with branding is on-point. The Serena ad does all the important things we’ve looked at. It talks about their why, it’s got a journey, it doesn’t talk about the product. What you really need to remember about adverts like this, and it’s a thing true of all sports sponsorship – they only really work if there’s a clear image of success at the end.
So, when Serena wins, the whole story works better. You need to present that image of success, it’s extremely important that a potential customer sees what will happen once they’ve bought your product.
The power of showing images of success when branding in this manner, is also why when sporting stars begin to drop down their rankings, sponsorships start to disappear.
So, to recap on the journey we’ve been on.
- We create a story, and we use the ancient and proven art of storytelling to engage the people in the room.
- We start with a character, and that character is your client. They’re the hero of our story.
- The hero has to have a problem and it needs to be big enough to grab the imagination. Ideally, it’s an internal problem, not an external threat.
- Our hero needs to meet a guide – and that’s where you come in. You’re the Yoda of the story.
- You need to give them a plan. I gave you a 6 point plan, but you can give them a 3 point plan if you wish. What’s vital is you show them you’ve got a plan. If you don’t have a plan, people won’t trust you.
- You need to give them a call to action. And it’s got to result in something. It could result in tragedy: This is what will happen if you don’t buy my product. This is the bad outcome.
- Or it could result in a romantic, comedic, or happy ending. That’s the image of success.